141 of 157 people found the following review helpful
on April 3, 2009
As a former evangelical fundementalist Christian I was humbled in reading this book. So many of the 'assumptions' I accepted from popular Christian apologists are based upon nothing more than shoddy historical research. I lost my faith in the bible as 'divinely inspired truth' due to things I learned in Cosmology. However, for a while I still didn't know what to do with Jesus and the resurrection. "How did this belief system just pop out of nowhere?" It just so happens that Richard Carrier is a scholar in the field of history from this time and sees right through these arguments that once led me captive. I was impressed by his knowledge of the subtleties of thought and customs that would make certain arguments that seem strong by todays standards, completely worthless. But this is what happens when one has a proposition (like the historicity and resurrection of Jesus) that they want to prove and defend; they scour ancient sources, lifting convenient quotes, while ignoring details that would weaken their efforts. I recommend this book to anyone interested in really getting to know the truth about Christian origins. This book has only made me look forward with even greater anticipation toward his forth coming work; 'On the Historicity of Jesus Christ.'
98 of 110 people found the following review helpful
on April 21, 2009
I was not expecting much from this book. In the introduction we learn that this book was the product of an internet debate with J.P. Holding. I typically do not expect much from internet debates, even when I'm one of the debaters.
But I was pleasantly surprised. This book is a careful and scholarly consideration of the question of whether the historical truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is at all necessary to explain the growth and ultimate success of Christianity.
Carrier takes his lead from points of Holding's argument by heading each chapter with a question raised (e.g., "Was Resurrection Deemed Impossible?" "Did No One Trust Women?"). In the course of responding to these questions we get an erudite examination of many lines of evidence of relevance. Carrier weighs in on the historical reliability of the Gospels, comparing them with the methods of critical historians of antiquity. He considers with considerable care the likely demographics of Christians in the first century. He reveals the prevalence of resurrection stories in ancient times, both within Judaism and within the wider Greco-Roman world.
It is regrettable that such scholarship was not published by a more prestigious publisher. It is understandable of course since any of the major publishers would have the same doubts as I did originally. But the scholarship of this volume deserves a wider readership. I hope it might achieve it, and I would wish that Carrier's future projects in this vein would be published more prominently.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on February 11, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition
This book has some really good strengths and some really bad weaknesses.
Stregthwise, I learned a lot about the early period during which Christianity was being defined and marketed. The oveall context shed a lot of light on history and historical context that I had not previously known.
Weakness wise, there are two main points. First, the book is written as a rebuttal to another book. (Since I read this on my Kindle, I cannot easily retrieve the name and author of the other book.) At times this can lead to double negative logic that requires careful study to follow. For example, if the original book argued that something wasn't true, Carrier may be arguing that it wasn't true that the (negative point) was not true.
Secondly, this book reads like the sort of "blowing off steam" that I occasionally write. Written in a huff at a single sitting after stewing on a topic for a while, which topic is always in reaction to someone else taking a position with which I disagree. Hopefully I never send such tirades to anyone else. Carrier's writing sounds like it was written in just that way and was never edited. It is highly repetitive and redundant. It would be much more effective, with no loss of information or authority, at half the size.
Still, there are some worthwhile nuggets and I had no difficulty sticking with the book to the end. I do wish I had read it in hard copy rather than Kindle so that I could easily go back and find the nuggets. That is just too hard to do on the Kindle even with notes.
So my 3 stars is a combination of four stars for information content and one star for writing style.
40 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on July 1, 2011
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Certain thoughts keep occurring over and over while reading this book. One is "Why does J. P. Holding's arguments require a relatively lengthy book to be refuted?" Holding's arguments seem to consist of a series of rhetorical questions which Carrier uses as chapter titles. Rhetorical questions are almost invariably a sign of the lack of sound arguments. Indeed, reduced to the basics Holding's argument reduces to "Who would make up a story like that? Therefore, it must be true."
In any event, Carrier makes short work of him. If this had been a boxing match the referee would have stopped it. Holding seems heavily overmatched here, so much so I began to suspect that perhaps Carrier was not being fair. Could Carrier be setting up so many strawmen and just knocking them over? A little research showed that if anything Carrier was being generous.
Despite the rather onesidedness the book is still worthwhile. Carrier is a capable writer and researcher and the picture that emerges of the first century Roman Empire and Christianity is fascinating. Carrier also confines himself to mainstream scholarship but points out that if alternative theories prove out Holdings case is not thereby improved.
The Kindle edition is quite good with one glaring shortcoming - the table of contents is not linked. The numerous footnotes are linked (fortunately). The other problems are the minor ones that seem to plague all ebooks like hyphens that shouldn't be there and the like.
All in all, a very informative and interesting read which I can recommend without hesitation.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on June 26, 2013
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I am a fan of Dr. Carrier's, and this book was very interesting, but I didn't give it a full 5 stars due to the fact that it was an arduous read. While I find the information trustworthy and am not qualified to dispute any of the facts therein, I wasn't riveted because this is essentially (and I knew this before hand) a point-by-point refutation of a book and online conversations. I admire Dr. Carrier, but I think he does take after James Randi in the sense that he absolutely thrashes his opponents without apologies.
I am further moving into the mythicist camp but I'm very glad to be done with this book.
For any Christians reading this review, there isn't a lot of slanted disdain to be found here. He is simply refuting J.P. Holding's arguments that Christianity succeeded solely because the resurrection was true. There is a lot of sociology in this book, which gives the reader an understanding of some of the other polytheistic religions in the time period and region and talks about how the peasant and middle classes viewed and were viewed by the elites of Roman,Greek, and Jewish societies. The story of how Christianity spread is one that has many factors which Carrier shows with numerous citations.
There were a few instances where he did cite himself though, and I thought that was kind of funny. But he encourages you to check his sources.
Still though, because I lack the knowledge and I am not qualified to say one way or the other, when Carrier claims that the majority of biblical scholars agree with him, and then someone like William Lane Craig says exactly the same thing, I find it about impossible to go about verifying which one is correct because I don't have the tools or the resources to check myself, so we laymen are still in a he said she said situation when trying to discern truth. I think it's reasonable to believe Carrier over Holding or Craig because of the thorough nature Carrier validates his sources.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Realizing that this book was written largely if not exclusively as a response to "The Impossible Faith," I think this work could have benefited from following the outline of that work less slavishly. I also think the book could have been half again as good if it would have been half as long. I understand--and usually appreciate--Dr. Carrier's careful and comprehensive scholarship, but "Not" suffers from some pretty distracting repitition (at least twice I said aloud to the book, "I get it, I get it already") and a penchant to, every paragraph or so, make a parenthetical reference to whichever chapter the subject under discussion is covered in more fully. Getting the information--excellent, well-researched, well-thought-out, and generally well-presented information--from the text became a job of extraction that was less pleasant than it could have been.
All of which sounds relentlessly negative, and the fact is, this is a very valuable book. The one-star reviewer makes some very facile cry-baby comment about how "Not" is biased, which is almost precisely what it is not. It is the first book I've seen of its kind, making a bright-line distinction between the rank assertions of apologists and facts that can be substantiated by evidence. Facts are indeed stubborn things, and they stand in the way of the sort of glib and ignorant faith that several neo-apologists advocate. "Not," along with some of Carrier's other works, stand as a potent, sober reminder that in promoting faith, many religionists are all too happy to stretch truth to the snapping point.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2011
I'm interested in the history of religions but I'm not inclined to learn Greek, Hebrew and Latin, nor to spend much of my life in dusty library stacks. So I'm extremely pleased to stumble across a competent scholar willing to do the digging and sifting for me.
Like any good historian, Carrier bends over backward to share his sources and his reasoning with the reader. This earnest effort at transparency tells me he's likely a trustworthy source in academia. As such, I consider it a good thing that he also goes to the effort to debunk people like Holding, who are obviously not.
While the format of the book, as rebuttal to Holding's book, is a bit unusual, I've taken many eye-opening insights from Carrier's exposition on early Christianity and the culture in which it developed. I wasn't really interested in the debate's topic so much as the many historical tidbits that are revealed along the way, and I feel I've easily gotten my money's worth.
24 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on April 5, 2010
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I purchased this book during the course of researching a discussion I was having regarding one of Bart Ehrman's books, coming across a website purporting to be about christian apologetics(compared to the other apologetics websites I had reviewed at that point, this one was essentially a christian-based hate group with a smattering of theocratic scholarship thrown in to create a veil of legitimacy).
Having an amateur interest in the history of the Roman Empire and its relationship to the development of christianity, I discovered the author (Richard Carrier) through the "apologetics" website and bought the book with only minimal interest in its purpose as a rebuttal.
The introduction to the book provides a background of the argument/rebutal, which helps readers who are not particularly interested in reviewing what appears to be unhistorical speculations. Although the rebuttal format of the book can sometimes be distracting this book really shines in its integration of the early history of Christianity with the historical period in general. The discussion of pagan traditions and mythologies is detailed and provides a great foundation for understanding the context in which early Christianity developed, and the discussion of the social forces at work in the various cultures present in the Roman Empire at this time is supplemented with insightful observations of applicable text that occurs in the bible. The author makes it very clear in several chapters how the development of the new testament (and early christianity) is firmly integrated with a changing social structure and the pagan/judeo belief systems from which it grew. While some of the book delves into the minutiae of historical analysis that may be more than the casual reader would like, it is never without an eye towards the larger theme of the discussion. I found myself highlighting several passages of the book that were only tangentially related to the rebutal because of the way the author communicates the general history of the period being discussed. Highly recommended, even if the theological aspects are not a primary interest.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 13, 2014
I've put off reviewing this book simply because I doubt that I can do it justice--it's that good. The real beauty of this book is not necessarily what Richard has to say as it is with Richard himself. I'm awed by his intellect. Yet, Richard manages to discredit James Patrick Holding, who authored: "The Impossible Faith" and the target of Carrier's wrath and he does so without allowing his own ego to dull the edge of his sharp scimitar. He non-to-kindly carves Holding a new...
Back to the book. Carrier spends a good deal of his effort, not in criticizing Holding, but contrasting the fundamental tenets of Christianity to that of pagan cults. I'll quote just a few to give the reader an idea of what you'll discover:
"That the Jews borrowed the idea of resurrection from Zoroastrian pagans is demonstrated not only by the fact that early Greek sources identify it as a Persian (and not a Jewish) belief, but by the fact that the Old Testament completely lacks any reference to the idea until after the Jews were exiled to cities in contact with Zoroastrianism. Alcestis-- and in legend, Theseus. Eurydice returns from the dead but due to a flubbed promise is forced back, while Alcestis is returned to life by being either rescued or sent back from Hades, either way for selflessly exchanging her life for that of her husband." (R. Carrier. Not the Impossible Faith; Kindle Locations 1300-1302.)
"That this hero had to die at the hands of elite conspirators in order to gain this ultimate power was not unusual--many a god required just such a path, from the Sumerian Inanna, to the Egyptian Osiris, to the Roman Romulus." (R. Carrier. Not the Impossible Faith; Kindle Locations 541-543).
And: "In any case, my point is not that there has been borrowing (just as I argued earlier), but that there were many gods who had to be killed to rise to glory and receive worship, so there was nothing unusual, and thus nothing improbable, in the same happening for Christ." (R. Carrier. Not the Impossible Faith; Kindle Locations 568-569).
On and on Richard Carrier goes as he held my interest right to the last page, or in this case, last word. You see, "Not The Impossible..." is also an audiobook called WhisperSynch. I love it and can enjoy a book ever so much more by hearing as well as reading along with the audio version--in this case, read by the author himself.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 2012
Atheist scholar Richard Carrier (whom we met before - see my review of J. W. Loftus' "The End of Christianity") is unleashed all by himself in this book, "Not the Impossible Faith", a somewhat weird work which looks like a cross between a scholarly tome and a self-published freak work. This attack dog of atheism is out to get one J.P. Holding (a.k.a. Robert Turkel), who is otherwise quite unknown (and self-published).
I don't deny that Carrier's book is extremely interesting, and it's a real pity that it's written in the form of an extended response to a single web apologist. This gives the book the previously mentioned "self-published" air, especially since Carrier admits that he got thousands of dollars from a pseudonymous donor to write it (a certain Johnny Skeptic). Also, a previous version of the work has already appeared on Carrier's website. The reason why Carrier nevertheless singles out J.P. Holding for special attention, is that many ex-Christians have told Carrier that they converted to some extent because of Holding's arguments, and later felt cheated and disillusioned.
I never read Holding's books, but judging by Carrier's critique, his main argument is an over-exaggerated version of the common apologetic claim that Christianity is unique. Usually, the argument goes something like this: "The idea of a crucified God-man being physically resurrected was absurd to both Jews and pagans. Yet, the tradition that the crucified Jesus was a resurrected God-man formed very early after the purported events. Therefore, the most parsimonious explanation is that the events recorded in the Gospels really happened. Nobody would willingly make up such absurd notions and start a brand new religion based on them." Holding seems to take this one step further, arguing that the resurrection of Jesus was seen as so bizarre, that everyone who converted surely had access to "irrefutable evidence" proving the resurrection to be true. As I said, I never read Holding's works, but if *this* is his argument, it's remarkably silly, since by "irrefutable evidence" Holding seems to mean something like being shown an empty grave, cross-examining the eye-witnesses, talking to (hostile?) people who were in Jerusalem at the time, etc. However, even the New Testament confirms that Paul didn't convert in this manner - he converted after a supernatural vision, and met Jesus' disciples only later. (Ironically, some Christian apologists use *this* as an argument for the supernatural character of Christianity - what else than a true miracle can account for the conversion of a persecutor like Paul?)
Carrier responds to Holding point by point, and his main thesis is that Christianity wasn't "unique" in the sense postulated by Holding. Nor, incidentally, was it unique in the manner often held by standard apologists. Who would want to believe in a crucified god? Carrier believes that the Sumerian goddess Innana was humiliated and crucified, but then miraculously brought back to life. He also sees similarities between the Gospel stories and the legend of Isis and Osiris. More provocatively, Carrier also points to Isaiah as evidence that some Jews expected the Messiah to suffer. Who would want to believe in a god from the rural backwater of Galilee? Carrier points out that Galilee wasn't universally despised. There was a faction of Pharisees based in Galilee, some Messianic prophecies mention Galilee, and Josephus - who was governor of Galilee for a period - never seems to think this would look bad in his CV. Galilee was given preferential treatment by some Jewish and pagan rulers. Carrier believes that Nazareth wasn't a rural backwater, but a prosperous (though small) town. Ironically, Carrier actually agrees with some Christian apologists, who argue that Nazareth was rich enough to have a synagogue (the one mentioned in the Gospels).
The most important part of "Not the impossible faith" deals with the incarnation and the resurrection. Carrier argues that neither would strike Jews or pagans as bizarre (or rather that some Jews or pagans wouldn't be struck in this manner). The pagans certainly believed that gods could take the form of men. According to Acts, Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for gods by a pagan crowd in Lystra. Some pagans believed in a physical resurrection - the very idea comes from the "pagan" Zoroastrians in Persia (who were also a kind of monotheists). Pagans who didn't believe in a literal resurrection in the Jewish or Zoroastrian sense, still believed that sorcerers or miracle-workers could restore dead people to life. While this isn't identical to the Christian claims about Jesus, it is sufficiently close for pagans to at least pay attention. Pagans also believed in a kind of "heavenly bodies", perhaps similar to those mentioned by Paul in his epistles. As for the Jews, Carrier once again provocatively uses the Bible to show that at least some Jews believed that the Messiah would be resurrected before everyone else: according to the Gospels, some people mistook Jesus for John the Baptist, assuming that God had resurrected the latter. (Personally, I would add that the early Christians expected the speedy return of Jesus, so the fact that he was resurrected before everyone else didn't necessarily pose a problem until a few generations later.) Carrier also points out that while Jews didn't believe in the Trinity, neither did the Christians during the earliest period. Conversely, some Jews believed that the Spirit of God would somehow incarnate in the Messiah. Carrier also points out the frequently overlooked fact that "Judaism" wasn't a homogenous or monolithic religion during the first half of the first century AD. Many Christian ideas which look unique or absurd from a post-Temple/Rabbinic/Talmudic perspective might have been just another version of Judaism during the Second Temple period.
In another important section, the author discusses why Jews or pagans converted to Christianity. Was it because the apostles had "irrefutable evidence" of the resurrection? Carrier thinks the reasons were very different. The strong community feeling of the early Christian congregations, the large number of (purported) miracles made by the apostles, and the lower-to-middle class appeal of the new religion would have been important reasons. Also, the Christians initially targeted the God-Fearers (righteous Gentiles) for conversion. Since these were already sympathetic to Judaism, a new form of Judaism which was easier to join would have suited them perfectly. The Christians also made frequent appeals to "the scriptures", attempting to prove their stories about Jesus by pointing to various prophecies in the *Old* Testament (the New Testament didn't yet exist!). Since the Jewish Bible was widely admired due to its old age, this kind of argument from authority would have worked with some Jews, God-Fearers and pagans. Even in Acts, people aren't convinced by empirical investigations of some empty grave or interviews with Joseph of Arimathea. They either trust the testimony of the apostles, check out the scriptures, or get supernatural visitations of various sorts.
I haven't "cross-examined" every one of Carrier's claims, but I strongly suspect that the author will turn out to be right on most of his claims. While Christianity may have been "unique" in some sense of that term, it did emerge in a religious milieu in which many of its ideas would be seen as another version of ideas already popular, albeit a very peculiar version. My favourite example is Justin Martyr, who was impressed by the similarity between the passion narrative and Plato's idea about the righteous man being hung on a pole, and the Son of God laying stretched out, cross-wise, across the universe. (I don't remember Carrier mentioning this detail, though.)
The main weakness of the book is that it never explains the empty tomb. Of course, this was never Carrier's intention. "Not the impossible faith" deals with the claim that the success and spread of Christianity was somehow a miracle. Apparently, he has written extensively on the empty tomb on his website and in another book, dutifully titled "The Empty Tomb". The reason why the tomb question is important, is that the conviction of the original disciples (and purported eye-witnesses) has to be explained somehow. Those who heard Peter speak might have been convinced by a vision á la Cornelius, but where did Peter's own convictions about the resurrection come from? Carrier at least hints at three possible (atheist) answers: the Christians were being somewhat liberal with the truth, Jesus never existed and the empty tomb is therefore an allegory, or the Christians didn't believe in a physical resurrection in the first place. The latter scenario seems to be the author's favoured one: if the Christian conception of the resurrection was "spiritual" rather than physical, the question of an empty tomb would never arise. The tomb *wouldn't be* empty. Yet, Jesus would have arisen anyway, presumably with a spirit-body of some sort. Of course, apparitions of the dead could be given a naturalist explanation (hallucinations, etc).
How will Christians react to "Not the impossible faith"? As usual in American works, the book is really a polemic against evangelicalism. Presumably, evangelicals would be scandalized by a crucified goddess. Other kinds of Christians might not. C.S. Lewis comes to mind. He would probably be impressed by the myriad parallels between Christianity, Judaism and paganism unearthed by Carrier, and buy him a pint of beer! Many Catholics, Orthodox and Pentecostals would probably see the combination of miracles, visions, scriptural verses and Peter's personal testimony as sufficient proof for the resurrection (or perhaps even better proof than a forensic investigation á la CSI). They would wonder what more evidence Mr. Carrier would possibly want? DNA from the scene of the crime?
However, as John W. Loftus pointed out in a little polemic against me this Christmas, it's virtually impossible to cover all 1000+ versions of Christianity in one single volume. ;-)
In the end, I'll give "Not the impossible faith" five stars, despite its self-published flair. All Christians, non-Christians and seekers should read this book, or at least come to terms with the kind of arguments it presents. Even apart from the fact, that Richard Carrier's book is something of a guilty pleasure...